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Declining teachers' rights vs. student rights

Korea roiled by debate over teachers' rights - Teacher's suicide spotlights declining status of profession

The tragic news of an early-career elementary school teacher in South Korea (she was only 23 years old when she took her life, born in the year 2000) who committed suicide in her own classroom after being physically assaulted by her own student (3rd grader, 10 years old) in addition to being bullied and threatened by the student's parents broke my heart. All the talk around the media right now is centered around "whose rights are more important? The teachers or the students?"

I know my website readership is international so some of you may see this post and think 'oh, just another tragic thing that happened somewhere far.' No, I want to draw everyone's attention to the urgency that requires all of us to step back, think, and see the bigger picture of our society, the ways in which most liberal democratic societies are operating under neoliberalism, consumerism and materialism.

For years now, we see this trend in the field of education that is heavily influenced by neoliberal consumerism and materialism, which has allowed the public perception around (public) education to be reduced to a mere educational consumerism. Students and parents view themselves as consumers. They own a sense of entitlement. They can blame the teachers whenever and wherever they want for whatever reasons because they have become the consumer kings.

"A total of 1,133 teachers have been subject to such harassment between 2018 and 2022, according to data released by the Ministry of Education. Also, the number of reported cases of students breaching the rights of teachers in classrooms surpassed 2,000 last year." (data from Korea Herald news report below)

Under the name of "students rights regulation act 학생인권조례," a series of educational policy were implemented in various parts of the country in order to recognize and uphold students' rights in schools. But at the same time, this was a part of politically-driven movement promoted and sustained by then opposition party. Now that a tragic soul has been taken, politicians are discussing how to rectify some of these regulations so that they can balance out each party's rights (rights of the students vs. rights of the teachers).

Nonetheless, this is not at all the ESSENCE of the issue. Among some of the most important discussions that need to take place, I want to highlight the following three:

First, 1) We must understand that this is much a LARGER societal issue than just a policy or a school-teacher-student-parent problem. It is a FAR BIGGER social problem that needs to be addressed among all citizens of the country and requires a time for all citizens to come together, face the Zeitgeist, and be willing to discuss what it means to be humane to each other, fundamental human dignity and respect and going back to history to trace back the original meaning of EDUCATION. 2) South Korea often struggles with path dependency. There are already talks among Korean politicians who proudly say that they plan to adopt US-styled pedagogical system which will solve some of these issues (see the news report from Korea Herald below). If they are sitting in the ministry of education, they should already well know that countries like the US, UK, or Canada are no exceptions to educational consumerism. Simply taking and applying a certain model of policy or a particular educational framework does not make meaningful interventions. A fundamental discussion around educational governance based on values of democracy is urgent. Last but not least, 3) a discussion around INTERSECTIONALITY. The tragic victims here are young, early-career, female teachers. This is not the problem that is only seen in Korea but elsewhere across the world. Representation in educational governance as well as discussion around intersectionality is absolutely important.

As I'm about to finalize this post, I feel compelled to share my recent experience. A series of disgruntled undergrad students came up to me, using disrespectful tone and manner, and say to me (or write to me via email), 'I believe I did everything right in my assignment and I want you to correct the grade you gave me. Here is my argumentation. A, B, C. If you find my argumentation to be correct (which I 100% am sure you will), I demand you to correct my grade.'

When I was in my undergrad (I did my undergrad in a highly liberal college in the US), this kind of email or attitude did not exist. It's just unheard of, something that could not even be imagined.

What I find in these students is a huge sense of entitlement that they have. They show no sign of respect, they are unwilling to learn, they only care about their grade, not learning. For someone who spends hours & hours preparing for tutorials, caring for their metal well-being, trying my best to discover more engaging sources in relation to the course materials, it is frustrating to only notice and experience being female, racialized, and TA (Teaching Assistants) means an easier target.

It is heartbreaking to see such young Threats to the integrity of human characters (kindness, warmth, communication) and the disablement of community have become too normalized. As Paulo Freire said, “It is not systematic education which somehow molds society, but, on the contrary, society which, according to its particular structure, shapes education in relation to the ends and interests of those who control the power in that society.” ― Paulo Freire

More readings/reports:

  • Korea roiled by debate over teachers' rights - Teacher's suicide spotlights declining status of profession

  • Suicide spotlights abuse of teachers by students and parents

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